Oumou Sangaré, the international singing star from Mali, at FMM music festival in Sines, Portugal 2007

Song as oral tradition in West Africa

Janet Topp Fargion (British Library) explores how a vast array of oral tradition genres exists alongside written expressions.

Focusing on sung poetry (song) in particular, she shows how oral traditions endure from generation to generation in their own right, on local and global stages, and as live and recorded performance into the 21st century.

Technologies such as writing and printing play a vital role in transmitting history, thought and creativity, and such technologies have a long history in West Africa. Existing independently of writing for centuries – yet interwoven with such technologies to the present day – is a wide variety of oral traditions passed down from generation to generation through live performance, and widely disseminated through recordings.

Stories, poems, proverbs, riddles, folk tales, epics, myths and jokes carry a community’s core morals, values and memories. Many of these literary forms are expressed through song and/or incorporate singing or forms of ‘heightened speech’ in their oral renditions. Yoruba oriki (praise poems), for example, are performed in such a form spoken song. Some genres of song performance are the preserve of specialised members of the community, such as the griot (hereditary musician/story-teller) traditions discussed below.

Others are less formalised and may be taken up by any musician and developed as popular forms, the many singers now forming part of the international music business – Oumou Sangaré, Youssou N’Dour, Fela Kuti, Angelique Kidjo, 2Face Idibia, etc. – providing excellent examples. Songs (sung poetry) in a vast array of genres are thus ubiquitous and powerful.

Songs of the griots: the epic of Sunjata

View this extract from a performance of the Sunjata epic featuring Hawa Kassé Made Diabaté, Fode Lassana Diabaté (balafon) and Chérif Keita (narrator). Directed and edited by Ely Rosenblum. 

© Marcia Ostashewski at Cape Breton University

Courtesy of the Singing Storytellers Publich Outreach Program, Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada

The epic narrative of Sunjata praises King Sunjata Keita. In the story, Sunjata frees the Mandé people from the oppressive power of King Sumanguru Kante, and founds the Mali empire in about 1235, an empire that lasted for almost three centuries and at its height ruled over some 20 million people.

Once considered mythical, the hero is now recognised as an historical figure. Like many great tales, the story is full of magical events. It begins with the marriage of Sunjata’s mother Sogolon to Naré, the Manding king, who marries her in fulfilment of a prophecy that she would give birth to a great man.

Before achieving greatness, Sunjata and his mother face a long period of exile from the Manding kingdom. During this time Sunjata’s wisdom, courage and kindness earn him wide respect. Eventually the Manding people call upon him to save them from conquest by Sumanguru.

Sunjata’s griot, Bala Fasaké Kouyaté, is highly influential in the conquest. He gains Sumanguru’s trust, by playing beautiful music on the balafon (xylophone), and learns the secret of Sumanguru’s magic power – that he can only be killed by the claw of a white rooster. He passes this information to Sunjata who is thus able to defeat Sumanguru and free his people. From then until today griots have maintained a central position in society as songsters, orators, lyricists, musicians and historians singing of the achievements of Mandé people.

The Sunjata epic has been hugely significant in the development of Mandé identity and particularly of Malians. Most of the main characters of the story have songs about them that are still sung today.

Listen to Mory Kante’s version of Soundiata [sic] from 1988. Published on Rail Band: Salif Keita and Mory Kante. SYLLART SYL 8357.

Griots musical instruments

Certain musical instruments, depending on where the musicians come from and which ethnic group they belong to, are exclusive to griots. In Mali, where griots are known better by the term jali or jeli, for example, the balafon, a gourd-resonated wooden xylophone, is played only by griots. As the Sunjata epic tells us, this instrument was central to the griot tradition dating at least back to the 13th century.

The kora belongs to a family of calabash harps found exclusively in the West African savannah and is probably of ancient Mandé origin. Traditionally the kora serves to accompany griots as they sing, but with musicians such as Toumani Diabaté it has become well established as a solo instrument in its own right.

Kora – a Mandé calabash harp

Kora, Mandé calabash harp of the griots

This kora was made by Alieu Suso Bakau in 1979 in The Gambia and was played by Toumani Diabaté on his international debut album Kaira (Hannibal Records, 1988). The instrument is owned by Lucy Durán.

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The Wolof xalam or the Bamana/Mandinka ngoni, an oval-shaped plucked lute, usually with three to eight strings, is another typical griot instrument. 

Postcard showing two griots (musicians and story-tellers) from Senegal. c. 1904

Postcard showing two griots (musicians and story-tellers) from Senegal. c. 1904

This postcard shows a photograph taken by Edmond Fortier, a French photographer, in Senegal. It shows two griots (musicians and story-tellers). The male musician is playing a xalam (an oval-shaped plucked lute) – see the caption that reads ‘Halamkat Sénégalais’ – suggesting these are Wolof musicians. The woman is likely to be the singer.

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While the musical instruments in the griot tradition are most frequently played by men, the singers are very often women. The woman in the above photograph is most likely to be the wordsmith and singer in this duo of griots. The Malian singer, Hawa Kassé Diabaté, in the video clip above, is also a fabulous example. Born into a very distinguished griot family, Hawa Diabaté is fast becoming a major international star.

Although Bala Fasaké’s virtuosity on the balafon is noted in the Sunjata story, emphasis in the griot tradition is equally placed on their skill in verbal arts and in their ability to relate genealogies and histories, especially when they are able to ‘sing the praises’ of their patrons. The singers are also very skilled in dealing in their songs with political and social issues. Indeed their poems frequently act as social commentary.

Popular song as social commentary

Beyond the griot tradition, poets and singers in a variety of genres also use the medium of song to communicate messages. The Malian singer, Oumou Sangaré, for example, is one of the most well-known West African singers to be speaking out against injustices to women. She was one of a number of West African singers to donate a song to the Half the Sky Movement’s 30 song/30 days project (2012) that aimed to show solidarity with women and girls throughout the world. The song she donated was called ‘Dugu Kamalemba’ (The womaniser) from her album Oumou (World Circuit WCD067, 2003).

Oumou Sangaré at FMM music festival in Sines, Portugal 2007

Oumou Sangaré, the international singing star from Mali, at FMM music festival in Sines, Portugal 2007

Oumou Sangaré, the international singing star from Mali, is one of the most outspoken singers on the injustices against women.

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Many singers have been outspoken on a range of themes criticising political regimes and speaking out against social injustices. The Nigerian, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, was arguably West Africa’s most effective protest singer, and reggae and rap artists continue the tradition.

Senegal’s capital city, Dakar, is home to one of the most vibrant rap music scenes in the world. Rap provides a powerful vehicle for communication, especially among the youth.  Increasing numbers of rap artists are producing what can be called ‘conscious rap’ designed to raise awareness of social issues, impart knowledge and comment on everyday experience. 

Local instruments such as the kora, and genres such as mbalax, frequently overlay the poetry, which is sung in a mixture of local languages and French to reach the widest possible audience within the region and throughout the diaspora. Although we normally associate rap with an African-American origin, looking further back in history, many authors trace the genre’s roots to West African oral traditions in which poems, stories and knowledge are sung over instrumental accompaniment.

The Nigerian Yoruba poetic form of ewi is another verse form of poetry recited in a type of heightened speech or recitative, half way between speech and song. Al-Haji Chief Lanrewaju Adepoju is one of the form’s best exponents. His work often comments on political matters, and he also composes religious Islamic poetry. Chief Adepoju reaches a wide audience by recording his poetry on CD and cassette tape sold in local markets. He often uses musical backing, mainly in the fuji genre, using a variety of percussion as accompaniment, including variable pitch or ‘talking’ drums such as the dùndún.

Listen to ‘Igba Kan Ko Lo Ile Aye Gbo’  by Chief Lanrewaju Adepoju. Published by Lanrad Records LALPS 175 in Ibadan, Nigeria.

Lanrewaju Adepoju’s recording studio, Ibadan, Nigeria, 2014

Lanrewaju Adepoju’s recording studio, Ibadan, Nigeria, 2014

Chief Lanrewaju Adepoju’s recording studio at his home in Ibadan, Nigeria. Photograph taken by West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song curator Marion Wallace.

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West Africa displays an enormous variety of poetic genres which are primarily expressed through performance whether spoken, recited in a sort of ‘heightened speech’, expressed on musical instruments as ‘surrogate speech’, or sung as songs in a vast array of styles. There are not always clear lines between these forms. Indeed songs of a large variety of styles and genres are present in almost all spheres of life in West Africa from rituals and ceremonies to protest songs and contemporary dance music. Songs thus form a core part of West Africa’s rich complex of oral literature. 

Janet Topp Fargion, Curator World and Traditional Music, Sound and Vision
  • Dr Janet Topp Fargion
  • Dr Janet Topp Fargion is Lead Curator of World and Traditional Music at the British Library. Her general research interest is the discipline of Ethnomusicology, with a focus on the music of Africa, particularly of South Africa and the Swahili Coast in East Africa. Her research currently centres on ethnographic sound recordings as sources for ethnomusicological investigation. She is an active member of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology and the Archiving Committee of the Society for Ethnomusicology and is chair of the Research Archive Section of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives. In 2015, she co-curated the British Library major exhibition West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song.